Brittney Griner returns to a U.S. divided over whether it's happy she's free

Salt Lake City is notoriously vicious toward Black athletes, but these jeers were something else.

A mural of Brittney Griner outside of the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Ariz., seen on Dec. 8.  (Photo by REBECCA NOBLE/AFP via Getty Images)Rebecca Noble / AFP via Getty Images

When the Los Angeles Clippers point guard returned to D.C. Saturday to play the Washington Wizards team he used to captain, Wizards fans gave him an ovation that shook the arena. But John Walls’ return wasn’t the only one that warranted attention Saturday. The arena's announcer also asked the crowd to celebrate the return of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner, who’d spent 10 months in Russian captivity, yet the audience's response was far more tepid.

In Salt Lake City, a prompt to the audience to welcome Griner home was met, at least in part, with derision.

As I looked around the arena, I saw only a few people hooting and hollering. Most of the crowd distractedly clapped their hands. As Griner’s image flashed larger than life on the big screen, only a few in attendance even bothered to look.

But, as far as I could tell, nobody booed. Reportedly, at the Utah Jazz game in Salt Lake City Friday night, a prompt to the audience to applaud Griner's return home was met, at least in part, with derision. Some fans in attendance said they heard as many boos as they heard cheers.

As former NBA player Etan Thomas has told me, there is no more vicious place than Utah for the NBA’s Black athletes. So, in general, people in that crowd booing a Black athlete is in character. But booing Griner’s emotional return home was not typical ugliness from Jazz fans. Fox News and right-wing social media have made Griner their latest piñata. That's why, rather than cheer an American Olympic champion's return home from authoritarian captivity, a share of basketball fans gathered in Salt Lake City raged.

A signage commemorating Brittney Griner's return to the United States during the game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City, Utah on Dec. 9, 2022.Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump, the QAnon-curious bigot, deserves some blame. He called Griner, who was reportedly caught at a Moscow airport with vape cartridges containing a mere 0.7 grams of THC, “a basketball player who openly hates our Country” and a “drug smuggler.” Trump described the U.S. agreement to hand over arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner “stupid” and “an unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA.” Previously he had called her “spoiled” and you don’t need to be the Rev. Al Sharpton to see the racist poison that Trump is selling to his base. She is one of themone of those Kaepernicks — a spoiled, Black athlete who has raised the issue of systemic racism and, in Trump’s racist worldview, needs to be brought to heel.

But it would be wrong to put all the blame on Trump. He is trying to get in front of a wave of anger already set loose by hundreds of tiny Trumps in politics and on social media, each of whom is trying to gain attention by being more repulsive than the competition. Instead of Americans being proud that President Joe Biden’s administration made an exchange for Griner’s release about a month after she was shipped off to do nine years of hard labor in a Mordovian penal colony, some have reduced her to a culture-war punching back: a Black, queer woman who kneeled during the national anthem. At her positively lowest moment, she was  dehumanized and reviled by callous right-wingers.

The right’s inability to celebrate Griner’s return is more evidence that we live in a country so divided that even bringing a captured American home weeks before Christmas, is fodder for more rage.  

Some people are responding as if Griner's family’s joy is an ill-gotten gain of a corrupt administration.

It seems simple to me. A person can be upset that the U.S. did not secure the release of Paul Whelan, a former Marine held prisoner by Russia, and still be happy for Griner’s release (as Whelan’s family is.)

Instead, some people are responding to the moment as if Griner's family’s joy is an ill-gotten gain of a corrupt administration.

This is not about Whelan or Viktor Bout. It’s about a section of this country that looks at a Black queer woman from Texas and doesn’t see an American but sees an “other." How very sad. If their hatred is preventing them from being part of this celebration, it is yet another sign that this country doesn’t have to worry about foreign enemies as much as it has to worry about its rot from within. 

What is certain to me is that the Utah crowd’s boos for Griner will be a distant memory by the time the WNBA season starts in May. We don’t know if Griner is going to return to the court right away —although, according to her agent, as soon as she got a ball in her hand Sunday, she dunked it. We can say that her return to a WNBA arena will be epic and cacophonous and that she’ll be greeted by fans and teammates who aren’t just happy to see Griner home but are happy that their public advocacy for her helped bring her home. It will be a remarkable night when Griner finally takes the court. And the joy we’ll hear then will drown out the gnashing teeth of all her haters.